Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Parents of the Mind": Mary Wollstonecraft and the Aesthetics of Productive Masculinity

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Parents of the Mind": Mary Wollstonecraft and the Aesthetics of Productive Masculinity

Article excerpt

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT'S COMPLICATED, AND AT TIMES SEEMINGLY contradictory attitudes toward sexuality remain one of the most difficult elements of her work. Critics, especially in recent years, have attempted to reconcile Wollstonecraft's critique in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791) of the "Romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling" encouraged by women's education in the discourse of feminine sensibility (1) with the passionate disposition attested to by her tumultuous romantic relationships with men such as Gilbert Imlay--a disposition which many critics believe to be represented by the character of Mafia in her unfinished final novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1797). While Wollstonecraft's complex take on women's sexuality continues to provide evidence for increasingly nuanced and sophisticated interpretations of her feminist project, I wish to open up this debate to an examination of her representation of men's sexuality, especially as those representations engage with the specifically gendered and politicized discourse of eighteenth century "sensibility." Although Wollstonecraft's analysis of masculine sexuality and sensibility in the Vindication and Maria mostly concerns the ways in which the oppression of women results in the unnatural encouragement and consequent perversion of male sexual desire, I believe that these two texts also offer a subtle consideration of a positive form of masculine sexuality, one which is vital to her egalitarian sexual politics. While Wollstonecraft's analysis of masculine sensibility and sexuality necessarily plays a minor role compared to her analysis of feminine sensibility and sexuality in the Vindication and Maria, an understanding of her engagement with masculine desire is absolutely crucial for comprehending her vision of a just society founded upon gender equality.

Specifically, many moments in the Vindication gesture towards a socially oriented and benevolent type of masculine sensibility that concerns itself with aesthetic production rather than with heterosexual reproduction. Wollstonecraft embodies this type of socially useful masculine sensibility in the character of Maria's uncle in Maria. Although the novel ostensibly represents this character as heterosexual, Maria's uncle exhibits gender and sexual behaviors that differ both from those associated with eighteenth century concepts of masculine sentimentality as well as male reproductive sexuality. These behaviors are positively valued in the novel because they allow for the sublimation of reproductive energies into a didactically useful form of masculine sensibility. Furthermore, Maria characterizes her uncle's benevolent, non-reproductive masculinity as absolutely essential to the maintenance of society, insofar as he becomes the example par excellence of a socially useful sensibility that allows sympathy to be directed outward, unselfishly, towards others, as well as producing a new concept of marriage, one liable to divorce. Such a reading of the Vindication and Maria allows one to recognize in Wollstonecraft's project a theory of the political importance of non-reproductive sexual identities within an egalitarian society and also, I believe, provides the starting point for an analysis of a particular genealogical branch in the history of sexuality in the figure of the "benevolent uncle." This literary type continued to be a vital figure both for nineteenth-century literature and within the history of sexuality. (2)

I. Wollstonecraft, Sensibility, and Sexuality: An Overview

The literature on sensibility's long and complex history is quite extensive. (3) As a discourse that is at once both in opposition to and a creation of Enlightenment rationality, both influencing and being influenced by the rapidly shifting race, class, and gender politics of the eighteenth century, one of the common themes of these studies is their emphasis on the extent to which the term "sensibility" and its closely cognate term "sentimentality" remain highly unstable and mutable throughout the period. …

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